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  • Writer's pictureMartijn

Russia part 5: Authentic adventures at Lake Baikal

I must be a little slow but I am increasingly realizing that traveling around the world non-stop and in a relatively short time is somewhat overwhelming. It is absolutely wonderful but it has a “drinking from a fire hose” aspect to it. It also produces the side-effect of becoming somewhat blasé, but the experience in Lake Baikal was definitely unique: our guide was excellent, our accommodations were uncommon as were our excursions.

We met our guide Darima in the city, after a smokey, low visibility arrival at Ulan Ude airport which had prevented us from seeing the lake from the air (see the Russia part 4 post for more descriptions of Siberian taiga fire smoke). She had been recommended by our earthrounder friend and guru John Bone who had preceded us. While giving us a quick tour of the city, she helped us rent a car -not easy because of low availability- and explained that Ulan Ude was part of the Republic of Buryatia, one of the more than 80 districts in Russia. They are called Krai, Oblast or Republic. The latter usually are the home to native populations, in Ulan Ude’s case the Buryats, a Mongolian people. In the city, about 30% of the inhabitants -including Darima- are Buryats and the rest mostly ethnic Russians who moved to Siberia at some point in history for religious or other reasons.

The main highlight of Ulan-Ude is the huge Lenin head, stemming from a desire to have a not-so-common Lenin symbol, i.e. not another full body statue like in most other cities.

They also have a Ballet theatre

And another worthwhile sight is the Buddhist temple complex (the largest in Russia) which reflects the strong Asian influence there.

All around the temple and in many other places, we have seen pieces of cloth tied to trees and bushes. Darima explained that they were part of shamanic rites for good fortune which are still very present today. One belief goes that when we die our soul splits in three: one part stays around to advise the living family, one goes to the reign of the spirits and neither Alex nor I remember what happens to the third. By making offerings to the spirits, you please them and can ask for something for yourself or your family also. Offerings typically include food, alcohol and pieces of cloth (clothes) for the spirits. Unfortunately, nowadays the fabrics used are mostly synthetic and they do not disintegrate, as opposed to the natural and bio-degradable cotton and silk used in the old times.

We very much wanted to get to Lake Baikal, so we left the same evening with Darima in the rental car for a 2-hour trip to a hotel on the shore. For the connoisseurs, I need to specify that the rental car was “normal”, meaning the steering wheel was on the left, which in fact becomes less and less normal as you move Eastwards in Russia where there is an increasing amount of second-hand Japanese cars with the wheel on the right. Apparently, the Japanese can’t bother with car repairs, so they export their used cars to Russia (and to Paraguay also we were told).

We made two stops on the way: one to buy meat, chicken and drinks for a shashlik barbecue upon arrival and one at a special site to make an offering to the spirits. Darima had brought wheat kernels and beer for us to spill on the ground and explained that if you did not have time to stop when you passed such a site, you could honk to let the spirits know you had not forgotten them. We did not leave any pieces of cloth on the site though, maybe our guide did not have bio-degradable fabric, or maybe the spirits did not need clothing in the summer.

The road to the lake was in very good condition, which was a blessing for the two-hour drive in the smoke and in the dark (during which we still did not manage to get a glimpse of the lake). Apparently, the good asphalt was due to a 2011 visit of Kim Jong Il who wanted to see lake Baikal, so the Russians immediately improved the road he would drive on in the interest of diplomatic relationships. Even though his whole visit was highly secret and secured, rumors go that he shopped at the same MEGA-TITAN supermarket where we bought our food, so it felt like we were simply following his steps!

We arrived very late at the rustic Hotel Riviera on the outskirts of a small town, with ski-resort-like cabins. They were expecting us and immediately whipped up a shashlik barbecue just for us which we enjoyed in a small gazebo next to the fire, drinking unfamiliar red wine (apparently a Stalin favorite…) and what was left of the spirit-beer, looking forward to seeing the lake the next morning.

After a Siberian breakfast with blinis (which are in fact more like crêpes than the thicker blinis we know) and other delicacies like chocolate éclairs which Darima loved, it was finally time for a stroll to the lake on the sand path behind the hotel lined with a mix of small wooden cabins and a huge mansion which allegedly belonged to the owners of MEGA-TITAN!

Darima enjoying the eclairs

Cabins on the way to the lake

At the end of the path, we finally could see and touch the lake! Unfortunately, visibility was low and we didn’t know if it was just morning fog or smoke.

Hoping for the former, we headed out for the car-tour Darima had planned for us, to a Marina and an eco-hotel mimicking a traditional village. We soon discovered we would need to wait a little longer to see the lake again because we got a flat tire as soon as we left the hotel, kind of in the middle of nowhere. While Alex (mostly) and I installed the spare tire, Darima called all automobile-related shops nearby and the closest repair possibility was 30 km away.

In the middle of nowhere...

We headed there slowly and when we arrived there was no one. Minutes later, a staggering man with red glassy eyes appeared and opened the door to a very messy workshop. To justify his condition, he explained he had celebrated his birthday the night before, apparently with lots of vodka. Was this the person who would get us out of trouble? After a quick look at our flat tire, he started searching for a right-sized tube but found none. We had to go buy one in another shop, 10 km further down the road. Alex did not want him to fall asleep or close his shop and leave, so he stayed with him while Darima and I hunted for a tube with the spare tire still on the car. While we were hunting, we also checked out another tire-repair shop in case our guy ended up not performing… but when we got back, we found him skillfully repairing the holes in the rubber and chatting away with Alex. A short while after he inserted the brand-new tube, inflated and replaced the tire and off we were. He even said a few words in French when we left because that was the language he had learned in high school!

Our savior repair-shop

in a tiny village...

This small adventure had taken most of the morning and our time with Darima was almost up: she had to go back to the hotel to meet another group of tourists. I don’t know how we would have managed without her with our poor command of the Russian language! Darima’s English was perfect and her enthusiasm for explaining and teaching was obvious, and probably one of the reasons why she won the “Guide of the year” award in 2019 which earned her a trip to Moscow and a prize.

Before abandoning us, she took us to a roadside café with typical Russian food where we tasted Buzza (dumplings with broth) and Bove (small fritters which you dip in condensed milk). Definitely worth ordering again!

Like a mother, Darima left us after some advice and contacts for the next two days which we would spend alone in the village of Ust-Barguzin, recommended by her because it was close to the Lake Baikal National Park.

Our first stop on the way to Ust-Barguzin was the eco-lodge Svetlana Polyana Park Museum which had been on the morning’s agenda and where we were to ask for a tour. On site, there were a few traditional looking wooden cabins and a wooden church, replicas made ten years before to look like early settler buildings. The cabins were occupied by tourists but we could visit the church and a small settler-house. The woman who showed us around spoke no English (we already missed our guide of the year!) but we were able to understand that the church was built without nails (just like the original ones) and that the pioneers had arrived 300 years ago. The orthodox chapel was beautiful inside and very unique, unlike the settler cabin which looked exactly like the ones you can see in North America: same low roof, same wooden or dirt floor, same narrow bed, same fireplace and basic cooking utensils (sorry, for blasé comment…).

Eco-lodge cabin we could not visit because it was rented by tourists

The mail-less wooden church

Inside the church (my head covered with my cardigan and my legs with a borrowed scarf)

We continued to the Ust Barguzin village where Darima’s friend Inokenti was waiting for us. He would be able to provide accommodation, even though there were very few options in the town and most of them were occupied because it was high vacation season in Russia. Inokenti did not speak English, so we communicated via whatsapp and Google translate. He asked us to send a picture of where we were when we reached the village so we stopped at a place we thought would be easy to recognize.

Village entrance

The picture we sent Inokenti

Indeed, a few minutes later, he picked us up in his car and took us to a small parking where his friend Michaïl was waiting with his wife and two young daughters in a truck.

He took us down a very sandy road to a small camping site with yurts on the beach of Lake Baikal which was to be our home for the next 48 hours.

The fog on the lake had lifted during the day and we finally were able to start to appreciate its greatness.

On site we met Rutlan from Tadjikistan who offered us some soup and invited Alex to a banya experience (= a wood stove heated sauna next to the ice-cold lake).

Alex accepted the soup but not the banya, and instead started cooking the Italian risotto (bought in Krasnoyarsk) we still had in our little blue flying pantry, a lunchbox we have taken everywhere since we left, that carries our in-flight lunches and at least one additional “emergency” meal. It has a very sophisticated refrigeration system: a small bottle of water which I place in the freezer (when there is one in our accommodation) and serves as an ice pack first and hydration later, two-in-one as many of our other belongings. Big thanks by the way to all those, like my mother in The Hague and Sandra in Cardiff, who have given us sandwiches and other goodies for the flying pantry along the way!

Rutlan's soup

Our little flying-pantry

Alex in the camp-kitchen

Left over Stalin wine!

We chatted with Rutlan after dinner, he explained with pictures and gestures that he had two wives: one in Ulan Ude and one back home in Tadjikistan. He proudly showed us photographs of his daughter’s wedding back home with several hundred guests in a beautiful venue with sumptuous looking food. This summer, he was working in a vegetable market in Ust-Barguzin and invited us to stop by. We thought he was going to spend the night but then he left the site and we realized that we were alone in the camp, in the middle of nowhere, on a Friday night, with almost no cellphone network and no electricity because the generator only worked between 8pm and 12 am. We climbed into our small wooden beds and fell asleep, in the total silence of the lake shore, hoping there were no bears around. Just to be sure I kept the tracker on and a kitchen knife under my pillow.

Daylight woke us up the next morning,

I went for a swim in the ice-cold lake while Alex enjoyed the sun with a cup of Nescafe (also from the flying pantry)

Michaïl came around 10 am to bring us some breakfast and take us to the entrance of the National Park where we would be able to join the boat tour. The breakfast was very local: smoked Omul fish (caught by himself in the lake), pieces of tomato, cucumber and red bell pepper, homemade bread with sausage and cheese, tea in a very big thermos and delicious peanut cookies. We tasted everything and took what was left over on our lake-trip.

When we arrived at the gate of the National Park, Michaïl explained that we had to drive for about an hour until we reached a small harbor where skipper Denis would be waiting for us. The boat tour would take us to a small island and to thermal hot springs on another shore. When we found the harbor and asked for Denis, he was not there. It appeared we had come too late and the tour had already left. We were not aware of the exact time we were expected to be there: because we don’t speak Russian, all communication had been difficult and approximate, despite Google translate and lots of goodwill. We really wanted to sail on the lake and it looked like there were several boats available but we couldn’t communicate enough to close a deal. Luckily, Alex spotted a young couple that looked like they might speak English and indeed, they did. They were Ana and Alex from Chita (we knew that town: it was our next fuel stop!) and as it turns out, they had also missed the scheduled boat, so we decided to take a private tour together. Based on our knowledge of what we would have been charged, Alex from Chita negotiated the price and off we went with our very young captain Alexander (another one!). He looked like he was about 16 but he seemed like he knew what he was doing on the water, so we relaxed. We chatted with Alex and Ana and found out they had been hiking and camping in the area for a week, that Alex was a geologist working in gold mining (I don’t think I have ever met a geologist or a gold miner before) and that they were going to visit her family in Krasnoyarsk the next day. We were very proud that we were familiar with all the places they mentioned.

The boat tour was fantastic

- On the island lived a seal colony that we could watch in silence behind a tall white wall with holes in it, so they wouldn’t be frightened by us humans. This freshwater variant called “nerpa” were the fattest seals I had ever seen, their fat blubbering like jello as soon as they moved their body on the rocks. They also wiggled their short finlike paws as if to chase others when they came too close. We were told that it is with the nails of those short paws that they made and maintained breathing holes in the ice as soon as the lake began to freeze.

Sunbathing nerpas (seen through our peepholes)

A nerpa close-up (seen on a poster at the entrance)

- The hot springs were wooden tubs with either 35 degrees C or 45 degrees C water that smelled like sulfur. A local guide explained that you were supposed to go in the lake first, then in the colder tub and finally in the hottest one. Anything different would be bad for your heart. Since we did not understand Russian, we started with the 45 degrees tub (mainly because there were less people in it) and then jumped in the cold lake in Scandinavian style. We only found out we had done it all wrong from Ana during our boat ride back. Luckily we did not stay very long in the hot tub: the wood felt a little slimy (hence the subsequent bath in the cleaner looking lake) and there were other people waiting to enjoy the healing benefits of these thermal springs which we had still to learn about. In any case, the experience was completely opposite to the one we had in Myvatn Iceland: crowded tiny wooden tubs with brownish water next to the largest and deepest lake in the world (bigger than all US Great lakes combined) versus an empty large white pool in a small country 😊

Lake Baikal is the greatest!

When we got back to the camp, the place had completely changed: it was full of families getting settled in the other yurts and cooking inside and outdoors. Clearly Saturday was a more popular camping day than Friday! Rutlan was there again but this time with a group of friends from Tadjikistan and we also chatted with a Russian family from Ulan Ude who spoke some English and gave us samples of their food to taste: pieces of salted Omul fish (I definitely prefer the drier smoked version), sweet tea with milk cooked into it (which reminded me of the novel “Three cups of tea”) and also some Samogan (local double distilled spirit). They asked us all kinds of questions and we learned about them, it was great fun. At some point, I wanted to show off my two Russian sentences and said “oo nas yest malínki samolot” (phonetic spelling of “we have a small plane”) and nine-year-old Regina immediately corrected me: it was “málinki”! This same girl also ate all the cherry tomatoes we had bought for dinner while we were in animated conversation with her parents and her older brother Buddha😊 I guess it was a fair exchange since I now knew how to pronounce málinki correctly.

Salted version of Omul

This second night we were definitely not alone in the camp and the toilet paper and water ran out in the already extremely spartan bathroom installations. I think this yurt experience was probably one of the most primitive ones I have ever lived but also one of the most authentic and interesting. We are all just curious humans who enjoy connecting with others. When we left, Michaïl showed us pictures of how the place looked in the winter when the lake was frozen and they danced and drove on it and made us promise we would be back. Maybe we should! And then the warm banya will definitely be part of the plan. If you are intrigued, check out baikal_belek on Instagram.

In the morning we packed and followed Michaïl’s truck through the sand to the main road one last time. This sturdy and allegedly super dependable AUZ (Ural Automotive Factory) truck, also known as “Bujanka” (loaf) had already pulled our “normal” rental car out of the sand twice since we arrived.

We promised again we would be back in the winter and headed to Ulan Ude (330 km away) for our last night in the area, looking forward to a real shower in hotel Mergen Bator where our Russian-crossing partners Amir and Tamra were already waiting to continue the trip together. Next stops: Chita for refueling and Blagoveshchensk, from where you can see China on the other side of the Amur River.

Thank you again Darima, Michail and Rutlan!

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